Consider the f-bomb: you can trace the trajectory of the story’s heart by the elegant deployment of that dexterous cuss word across the pages of Ray of the Star, Laird Hunt’s latest (arguably best, unarguably most emotionally engaging) novel. What initially reads with an unsettling, weighty effervescence—comparisons to the massive quantities of sparkling water the characters drink as if it is about to be taxed out of their brackets are certainly appropriate—accumulates context through circumstance so that it grows steadily more sinister with each passing page. By the end, it is razor-sharp, and fast. It cuts.
It needs to. Pain is one of the particles forming the novel’s packed core. The story focuses (largely) on graying-haired Harry, a man who once suffered a loss that left his life in shambles. After opening with a potently allusive (and allusively potent) evocation of that loss, we find Harry, Snickers bar and New Yorker in hand, putting himself on a transatlantic flight away from “the house that years ago had stopped being his home.” During his flight—hero going on a journey? stranger coming to town?—we find he is emotionally mending, more or less; still prone to crushing bouts of hopelessness, he is now capable of experiencing uneasy, extreme bursts of energy.
His trip takes him to a nameless, dreamily drawn European city near the ocean. He has been here before, at some point in the blurry triptych of his history:
...he had sat in a bar in that great city and smashed himself to smithereens for no compelling reason, the way he had done many things in that particular part of his deep past, when he had worked hardly at all and slept a great deal and very little had mattered, much like, he thought as he took the exit for the airport, now, this moment, these last years, although the situations were not the same, oh no, even if very little now mattered and very little had mattered then there had been those intervening years when everything had mattered and that changed it, irrevocably...
He does what pretty much anybody would do, in his situation: he visits some zoos, treats himself to a little acupuncture, buys himself some fresh clothes, thinks about frogs, considers his chances. All is fine and properly random until said chances bring him into some choice encounters with the colorful residents of this city. Through these accidental meetings, Hunt creates, with a deceptively light touch, “an agreeable matrix of potential and mystery”—agreeable, at times, at least. For as the gears of the story’s clockwork catch, the novel becomes, at once, an oddly charming love story and something else entirely.
Hunt has dealt with romantic love before. He affects a cool inversion this time out, though. Where anguish found root in the doomed relationship of Indiana, Indiana, in Ray, romance represents a way out of terrible pain, both for Harry and for Solange, “the silver angel,” one of a community of living statues who line “the broad sloping central pedestrian boulevard that split the city and led down to the sea.” She, too, has survived tragedy, though she seems to be dealing with it better than Harry ever has his own. Of course, timing is everything, and for Harry, Solange quickly becomes “a silver suffix to all that had gone wrong in his life and a silver prefix to all that might...still go right.”
Around this thread of hope and the potential for redemption, Hunt twines that something else entirely, a story of inescapability, of horrors. Launched into the orbit of three old men known only as “the connoisseurs,” through an accidental encounter with Doña Eulalia, a psychic with good intentions who realizes she “must come off like a complete and utter charlatan,” Harry finds himself not walking away from his past but running toward it.
The darkness is effective because Hunt threads through the story a fine strain of left-field funny. Humor can come from a well-timed descriptive quip (Harry’s Restless Leg Syndrome feels “like someone had taken the content of an endless Tarkovsky movie and somehow shoved it under his skin”) or a run-away figure (Harry, spirits raised, daydreams for a page about being “the rather crisp echo of some supporting actor from a New Wave film that no one had ever seen” composed of “just the sort of somewhat moving, slightly somber, brilliantly stupid content out of which the New Wave engineered its complexity”).
Hunt also works a reader-response wait-huh-what-now? thing particularly well. Previous incarnations of this have popped up in the field-strewn objects of Indiana, Indiana and the red herring of The Exquisite, the difference here being that rather than being caught up in the darkness, the oddities of Ray give shape to it. Drop all those bottles of sparkling water and those talking shoes and that yellow submarine and the book becomes dull. These objects and moments can distract, and avoiding the search for deep symbolic meaning in them can be a challenge (“But really, what does the sparkling water mean, what human impulse does it stand for, precisely?”), but the battle is worthwhile.
The way the aesthetic of the book comes into play is critical. Play being a carefully chosen word. All this stuff exists and affects because of the way Hunt plays with language and narration. Ray is told through sprawling, piling, reflexive, complex, digressive, expansive, burrowing (and so forth) sentences that average in length from two to three pages. The third-person narrator slips from from character to character, occasionally forgetting himself long enough to revel in the paradoxically self-aware tones of fairy-tales (Harry, “our hero,” really?) as it muscles toward one closing punch after the other. (If you do not laugh out loud when you hit the intrinsically droll phrase “gigantic duck,” you are probably reading a different novel.) The reader keeping score will note that gluing dialogue together with commas might constitute cheating. But for every eyebrow-raising comma, there is a symphonic soloist extended-length slam dunk. Put the one that opens the second section of the novel up on your white board the next time you need a reminder of the hair-pulling beauty English sentences are capable of creating:
This move, the difficult, perhaps impossible performance of which many of us can commiserate with, in which the body leaps up and back, while time, of course, continues to move forward, might be diverting enough to stop a moment and consider—picture for example the long gorgeous lift of the Olympic athlete in the midst of a perfect floor exercise, or the delicate, deadly grace of the Shaolin Temple Kung Fu master flipping backwards, through a snow shower, above waving bamboo, or a determined teenage girl crashing backwards over and over again into bright blue water—as having teetered for a moment at the midpoint of this story, the days again began to slip by...
...and so forth, for another two and a half pages of outright awesome writing. In fairness, the individual reader’s mileage will vary with his or her willingness to slow down when instinct says speed up. Though the sentences strive for flow, they are best enjoyed by sipping, not chugging.
Diving down beneath the aesthetics reveals plenty to keep the caffeine-fueled coffee shop conversation going past closing: the tension between escaping and preserving the past, the ways we deal with grief, the gut-wrenching realization that people only get their acts together at the moment the stage is pulled from beneath one’s feet (see also: Synechdoche, New York). Hunt works his ideas into a book that reads for much of its length like a sequel; even as the past is foremost on our minds, we glean only enough to draw a handful of lines, not enough to form multidimensional volumes. The gap is fascinating.
Finally: is this Hunt’s best novel? Answering that question might be a challenge for those who find everything past his first novel, The Impossibly, not quite challenging enough. Such readers may be troubled to find that the aesthetic experimentation of Ray serves less to mess with ideas and more to compose a broad, nuanced emotional score. For the rest of us, ready to be both challenges and provoked, the answer is closer to hand. To quote the connoisseurs: “The word is ‘fucked.’”